Mental health needs are exploding in Dallas, but new jail diversion center underutilized
The Dallas County Jail grapples with a huge number of mentally ill people in its custody, but a new program designed to help reduce that — and get help to people with mental illness — isn’t filling its beds.
County jails, not hospitals, are the largest mental health treatment providers in the state. But experts say residents with mental illness need preventative services and community programs, not jail. And keeping the mentally ill out of the criminal justice system reduces jails costs to taxpayers.
In response to the need for mental health care — and to tackle a stubbornly high jail population — officials in Dallas County opened a diversion center last year. Police officers can take nonviolent people accused of criminal trespass to the center, where they get mental and physical health assessments and connect to services.
But numbers from the center’s first five months show it’s underutilized. From September to January, only 102 people were referred to the Deflection Center, on pace for about 245 for a twelve-month period.
That would be about 200 fewer people than the original first-year goal of 450.
“There are days when there’s just nobody in the building,” said Dallas County Administrator Darryl Martin. “That’s not good.”
The Deflection Center is located in the city’s southern sector at Homeward Bound, a substance abuse and behavioral health care nonprofit. Going to the center is voluntary; the person can choose to go to jail instead.
Most of the people who choose the 16-bed center would otherwise spend at least some time in the county jail. At the center, they get a psychiatric assessment from the North Texas Behavioral Health Authority (NTBHA) and a medical assessment from Parkland Health. Homeward Bound provides food, clean clothes, a shower, and other basics. NTBHA then continues with mental health treatment.
A report sent to KERA by Homeward Bound Executive Director Doug Denton shows 17 drop-offs in September, followed by 14 in October, 29 in November, 21 in December and 21 in January.
Denton said he anticipated a six-month startup period in which local police departments would get accustomed to this new option. He said when the center opened, it focused on its relationship with the Dallas Police Department’s south-central division, DART Police, and Parkland Hospital’s police.
The outreach and training later expanded to all DPD divisions and other police departments around the county.
“We’ll go to any law enforcement agency and provide what level of orientation they need so they can access us,” Denton said. “They can bring them without the training.”
There’s widespread agreement the community needs a diversion center. More than 2,100 people booked into the Dallas County Jail in January — about 50% of the total — had a history of receiving mental health care or were flagged for mental health concerns during the book-in process.
KERA asked the Dallas County Sheriff's Department for the number of people booked into the jail in January on criminal trespass charges but did not receive a reply.
According to data published by the Texas Department of Public Safety, there were more than 1,830 arrests for misdemeanor criminal trespass in Dallas County in 2021, a monthly average of more than 150.
'It’s part of just letting folks know’
The City of Dallas makes up about half the population of Dallas County.
DPD spokesperson Kristin Lowman said the department has sent bulletins and videos to front line officers with information on the center, but “it seems that talking directly to the officers has been an effective way of getting the point across” at roll call meetings at the top of a shift.
“There are plans to further educate officers that this is an option,” said Lowman.
She said the department has also connected the center with the police academy so it can be included with other mental health training.
KERA spoke with several people who said the message had not filtered down to officers on the front lines.
“Leadership needs to determine utilization,” Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price said.
Price said staff from the district attorney’s office were going to visit law enforcement agencies to explain the purpose of the center.
“It’s part of just letting folks know this is a different model and a different way,” Martin said. “It’s habit for law enforcement ... You pick somebody up, you arrest them, you take them to jail.”
Alex del Carmen, a criminology professor at Tarleton State University, said best practices dictate that police officers be trained to understand the program and know in what circumstances to use it.
“The supervisor is there to ensure that that is applied,” he said. “So that it become a part of a policy.”
Harris County model
The Dallas Deflection Center is modeled after the Ed Emmett Center in Harris County. That center’s monthly average admissions from September through January was 135.
Any comparison with Dallas County, however, comes with a couple of caveats: Harris County has almost twice the population of Dallas County, and the Ed Emmett Center does not limit itself to people accused of criminal trespassing. It accepts other low-level, non-violent misdemeanors.
Denton said the Dallas center is exploring whether to welcome people beyond those picked up on criminal trespass.
“We want to see — can we make a difference in the jail population? And if we can do it with [criminal trespass], we can do it with other offenses,” he said.
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